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Open Mic: Birds in Art at the Woodson Museum

Birds in ArtAn opening message from Woodson Art Museum Director Kathy Kelsey Foley: I had the pleasure recently of walking the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum’s galleries with Susan Ford-Hoffert – an experienced and well-traveled birder and also a longtime Museum member and enthusiast.

While Susan and I do share a love of art, her bird-watching skills far eclipse mine. Her keen observations are beautifully presented in the post that follows. We’re grateful that Susan took time to share these thoughts with us.

The Woodson Art Museum prides itself in offering the best indoor bird watching on the planet thanks to the talents and creativity of hundreds of international artists.

Birds in Art is the Woodson’s flagship exhibition, organized anew each year. Information –  including the exhibition prospectus – is available on the Museum’s web site at  The exhibition opens in Wausau, Wisconsin, on the first weekend after Labor Day. Following the close of Birds in Art at the Woodson, sixty of the more than 100 artworks travel to additional venues each year. The 2012 exhibition travels to: The Wildlife Experience, Parker, Colorado,  December 1, 2012 through February 18, 2013; Newington-Cropsey Foundation, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, March 9 through May 5, 2013; Frank H. McClung Museum, University  of Tennessee, Knoxville, May 25 through August 18, 2013; Rockport Center for the Arts, Rockport, Texas, September 14 through November 16, 2013.

A fully illustrated, 132-page color catalogue accompanies Birds in Art. It’s available online  [] or by calling the Woodson Art Museum at 715-845-7010.

Enjoy Susan’s Birds in Art bird-watching expedition!


by Susan Ford-Hoffert

When I’m asked why I love birding, I struggle to articulate my passion. Do I say I love the birds–these alien creatures of wing and feather who fascinate me with their diversity as well as their behavior? The link to the outdoors in an increasingly urban world? The hunt to find the scrap of color in a monochrome winter setting or identify which streaked, brown tiny peep is scooting back and forth in front of the lapping waves on a windy beach?

Wandering through the clean, light spaces of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, taking in Birds in Art 2012, I realize all
my answers are here, beautifully represented in the works of artists from around the world. This is no field guide on canvas. This is a loving  tribute that in many ways recreates what I, as a birder, see and feel in my birding adventures.

Birds are here of course, up close and personal. An American Kestrel (Todd Wohlt) perches on a pine branch, so realistic I expect its dark eye to blink. I see in three dimensions every rufous back and tail feather and its slate-blue wings; the telltale falcon mustache.

A spotted dove (Gail Stanek) rests on a banana palm, a tropical counterpoint subtly colored but with an arresting half-collar of black and white spots. It sits tucked into a curve of the palm, quiet and still.

A hooded crow (Zev Labinger) sits on a wire, backlit but still identifiable through its silhouette of fanned tail feathers and the white belly with an equally fanned throat patch – assuming of course I was familiar with this European bird. But how often do I peer above me, amazed that in bright light I cannot make out any color and need to rely on the outline of the bird in question?

Its American cousin, a common raven, grasps a piece of deadwood (Miki Harder) and gazes gravely into the distance; I see the strength of its bill and the grace of its wings. Somehow in this bronze sculpture I also see the intelligence of the bird; perhaps because of the juxtaposition of its awkward stance with the dignity of its gaze.

A tiny yellow-rumped warbler in winter (Larry Barth) is not the bright blue and yellow of courtship but a quiet soft gray, just as beautiful as in spring. I am reminded again of the delicacy of birds – they are small; light puffballs that soften the bleakness of a northern January.

I begin to feel like I am walking along a birding trail . . .without the heft of my binoculars and dressed normally (no knee boots or sun hat or pocket vests).

Over there,  a snowy egret (Sandra Blair) basks in a concentrated spotlight of sun, easy to identify. But wait; look again. The light glows, and I now see the prism of colors in what I thought was a white bird. I knew this was a beautiful bird but this artist has given me the luxury of a long look in open sunlight, and now it takes my breath away.

A European coot (Alan Woollett) glides across a gently moving body of water – plain, black, numerous as the ones I see here at home and yet it fascinates me. The play of light and movement captures a serenity that I didn’t anticipate, and I appreciate this common bird’s beauty in context with its surroundings.

Also familiar is a red-shouldered hawk (Catherine McClung), peering through palm fronds and a breath away from lifting off for the hunt. But here and with the gift of time to observe, I become aware of how the lines on this bird’s breast, tail, wings help camouflage it in the lines of the fronds.

Many of these artworks hint at the behavior of birds that capture my attention and lead me to stand still and just watch. The sandhill crane (Janet N. Heaton) in full courtship display is an easy example – the full, in-your-face ritual of every feather spread to make the bird look huge; the ballet steps of the dance lifts my heart. Equally fascinating is the busy endearing focus of a wren (Harro Maass) feeding chicks in a tongue-in-cheek piece that makes me laugh, especially since I could see a wren making a nest in a curl of paper – “make do” is this species’ motto, I think!

A western screech owl (Tony Angell) postures in an inquisitive manner, easily identifiable to me as one of those moments when I wonder who is watching who. Like birding, this exhibition also offers the hunt – stunning scenery that an experienced birder will appreciate for what it contains.

There! First, I see only a pool reflecting the late summer clarity of a spring-fed pond (Al Barnes) and admire the calm beauty. But quick, look! There’s a barn swallow streaking by, scooping up water on the wing. I have to look twice to truly SEE what is in front of me.

What looks like backlit reeds on what could be a flooded field (Chris Bacon) on a still day reveals a tiny dunlin, stage right. Like real birding, I didn’t see it at first . . . but I just knew there had to be a shorebird somewhere – its perfect habitat.

I pass through the seasons and the regions–here is a frosty bay (Jim Bortz) and yet I detect movement and THERE . . . three common goldeneyes on the wing.

A Wisconsin stand of birch – all white and black against golden underbrush (Mike Anderson) is less challenging. The pileated woodpeckers pop out–an easy but thrilling find.

A steamy summer morning in a flooded valley out west (Edward Aldrich) and I see the almost abstract shape of a great egret, easy to identify but somehow also blending into the light and dark of the water, grasses, shadow and sunlight.

The drama and spectacle of two bull hippos (Jan Martin McGuire) challenging each other – all roars and tusk slashing and gigantic bodies charging through the water – was a visual reward. And then I saw the bonus: three oxpeckers zooming away from the fight. One looks frightened, but the other two look resigned to dealing with this kind of disruption in their feeding.

These artists capture the essence of birding. They appreciate the beauty – paring down the elegance of a perched bird (Bill Price) to smooth, exaggerated arching lines that capture stillness, speed, movement and grace. A family of Dunlins (Hank Tyler) are reduced to plump round bodies contrasting with textures of mud and water – they blend in and yet they don’t.

Several pieces feature house sparrows, an invasive species that many of my fellow birders disdain. I generally agree but in looking at a cluster of them on an old brick wall (Kathleen Dunn), I saw the contrast of their feathers against the hard shapes, their implied activity, and the blend of their browns and grays against the worn yellow and red and saw the beauty that they bring to the most urban and (at first glance) ugly of environments.

And that’s what birds do. They bring beauty and mystery, spectacle and comedy into our world. They are everywhere – in impenetrable forests, along sandy coasts, across mountain vistas, and right there on the sidewalk in front of us. We just need to look. Birds in Art gives us
the opportunity and the luxury to look and look again and appreciate birds for all they are and all they represent.

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The ABA Blog's Open Mics offer an opportunity for members of the birding community to share their voice with the ABA audience. We accept all and any submissions. If you have something you'd like to share, please contact blog editor Nate Swick at [email protected]
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